The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I could really tone it up’: Trump shows little interest in uniting the nation during crises

President Trump on Oct. 26 spoke about the arrest of a man suspected of sending bombs to liberal political figures. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump began his first public appearance after Friday’s arrest of a mail bomb suspect on a seemingly inclusive note, declaring as he read a script from teleprompters that “we must never allow political violence to take root in America” and pledging to “stop it and stop it now.”

But then he kept going. 

Standing in the White House’s ornate East Wing, the president expressed annoyance that numerous bombs sent to Democrats and a news organization that Trump had long demonized had taken the spotlight from his Medicare drug prices announcement the day before. He told the audience of young black leaders he was addressing that the Democratic Party has betrayed them. He laughed along as some in the crowd chanted “Fake News!” And he echoed a chant of “Lock him up!” about liberal philanthropist George Soros, one of this week’s bomb targets.

Ten days before the Nov. 6 elections and facing a host of controversies and crises, Trump has not merely struggled to unify the country — he has shown little interest in trying. Time and again, the former reality television impresario has sought to sow discord, betting that most Americans prefer his pugilistic, divisive style over the sanitized mold of his predecessors.

The midterm elections are increasingly becoming a test of the enduring power of Trumpiness: A brand of anything-goes, combative politics focused on personal attacks and demagogic rhetoric, with little consideration for the presidential tradition of providing moral clarity and unity at moments of tragedy or danger. 

“These are the times when words really matter,” said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of a new book on the subject, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times.”

Throughout history, Goodwin explained: “There are moments when the president’s ambition for self becomes an ambition for the greater good, to become a leader rather than simply a holder of power. The president is in a unique position during moments of crisis for the nation to mobilize the people around common ideals that should bind us together.”

This week offered a fresh example of Trump’s alternative approach: As pipe bombs were discovered addressed to prominent Democrats and a news network that have been subjects of Trump’s caustic campaign-trail attacks, the president sounded a call for national unity. 

But the words rang hollow throughout the week as Trump assailed the “Fake News” media, shirked any personal responsibility for his incendiary rhetoric and, on Friday morning, used his bully pulpit to advance a baseless conspiracy theory that the bombs were both fake and orchestrated by the left. Roughly an hour later, authorities arrested 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc, a man in Florida with a lengthy criminal record whose white van was covered in pro-Trump and anti-Democratic images. 

Later Friday afternoon, as he departed Washington for a rally in Charlotte, Trump told reporters he has no plans to tone down his rhetoric — “I could really tone it up,” he said — and noted that the suspect “was a person that preferred me over others.” He also rejected the notion of responsibility: “There’s no blame. There’s no anything.”

His supporters often argue there is no clear connection between the president’s impolitic remarks and violent acts or threats. In the case of the pipe bombs, which his own FBI director said were “not hoax devices,” many Trump backers emphasized Friday that no one had been injured.

Over the past two months, Trump has faced down a series of challenges in which he has overtly and deliberately tossed aside the expected responsibilities associated with his office. 

During Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s rocky confirmation to the Supreme Court, Trump publicly mocked Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were both teenagers; he said later in a “60 Minutes” interview that his treatment of her did not matter because “we won.” Then, as news emerged that Saudi Arabia had orchestrated a premeditated killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, the president was muted in his criticism of the Middle Eastern country, reluctant to disrupt the strategic ties — including an arms deal — between the two nations.

Trump’s rhetoric surrounding the midterms, too, has centered on his and his advisers’ strategic decision to paint an apocalyptic portrait of the country under Democratic rule, a vision fueled by a potent mixture of falsehoods and fear. 

With many in the Republican Party following his lead, the president has repeatedly cast Democrats as an out-of-
control “angry mob” that is “too dangerous to govern.” Last week, with no evidence, he claimed that unknown “Middle Easterners” had infiltrated the caravans of Central American migrants snaking their way north toward the nation’s southern border before ultimately admitting he had “no proof” for the claim. 

And on Thursday, news broke that the administration is weighing a plan that would seek to close the U.S. border to Central Americans entirely and deny them the chance to seek asylum. 

More recently, after frequent targets of Trump’s criticism became the actual targets of at least 14 attempted pipe bombs — including former president Barack Obama, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. and CNN — the president decried “the threat of violence as a method of political intimidation, coercion or control.”

But Trump has disputed that he contributes to a divisive political climate and has continued his attacks, calling the media “so bad and hateful that it is beyond description.” 

Former CIA director John O. Brennan, the addressed target of an explosive mailed to CNN’s New York headquarters, chastised Trump and urged him to “stop blaming others.”

“Your inflammatory rhetoric, insults, lies, & encouragement of physical violence are disgraceful,” Brennan wrote in a Thursday tweet. “Clean up your act....try to act Presidential. The American people deserve much better.” 

Responding to Brennan’s criticism on Fox News, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders defended her boss. “The president, I think, could not have been more presidential yesterday when he spoke directly to the American people,” she said Thursday.

Yet at 3:14 a.m. Friday morning, the president singled out CNN’s coverage in a tweet, saying the network was “blaming me for the current spate of Bombs . . . yet when I criticize them they go wild and scream, ‘it’s just not Presidential!’”

For several days, some prominent Trump allies on the right, including talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, fanned a “false-flag” conspiracy theory that the bombs were not real and directed by liberals as a way to reverse Trump’s campaign-trail argument that Democrats are “the party of mobs” and show that conservatives, too, favor mob tactics.

Later Friday morning, Trump edged toward an endorsement of that theory. “Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows,” the president tweeted.

The president’s approach of playing to his base by sowing division and fear stands in marked contrast with his modern predecessors, both Democratic and Republican. 

Cody Keenan, a former chief White House speechwriter for Obama, said Obama and his aides recognized that providing a moral vision to the nation at times of trauma or division was one of the most important jobs of being president and they took it seriously.

“There is no room for ‘but this’ or ‘but that,’ ” said Keenan, who helped Obama pen many of his soaring speeches during moments of national crisis, including numerous mass shootings. “If a president doesn’t come out and say, ‘This is right,’ and, ‘That is wrong,’ they’re missing an opportunity to provide moral clarity for a country often in search of it.”

 Trump has at times shown a willingness to claim the moral high ground. Last year, for instance, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, Trump authorized the use of nearly five dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syrian targets.

Aides said the president was especially moved by the images of young Syrian children who had been wounded and killed in Assad’s attacks. The U.S. strikes also allowed Trump to portray himself as stronger and more decisive than Obama, who had set a “red line” for Syria but never followed through on his threat.

In a least one high-profile moment — the deadly violence last year at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville — Trump wavered. After coming under criticism for blaming the violence on “both sides,” Trump gave a speech condemning racist hate groups as “repugnant to all that we hold dear as Americans.” But he almost immediately told aides that his lofty remarks were among his biggest mistakes, describing it as the “worst speech I’ve ever given,” according to Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear.”

“It’s very hard to think of a president in American history who has been as aggressively divisive as this one and who has shown essentially no moral leadership,” said James K. Glassman, a former ambassador and undersecretary of state who is the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute. “Presidents set the tone, and certainly you can’t say President Trump is responsible for somebody sending bombs to Democratic leaders across the country, but there is a climate in this country that’s being encouraged by the president.”

Trump has long exhibited disinterest in expected norms of the presidency, arguing that his freewheeling style is more exciting.

“It’s so easy to be presidential, but instead of having 10,000 people outside trying to get into this packed arena, we’d have about 200 people,” Trump said during a recent campaign rally in Wheeling, W.Va., exaggerating the size of the crowd.

Then, he held up a sheet of paper and began impersonating his version of a more conventional commander in chief, rattling off a list of buzzwords — “ladies and gentlemen,” “great Americans,” and “thousand points of light.”

“Which,” Trump said, continuing to ad-lib, “nobody has really figured out.”